Archaeology corrects beliefs about Jewish-Christian relations

In June and July 2015, the Kinneret Regional Project’s excavations carried out in Galilee in northern Israel unearthed a mosaic floor dating back to the Byzantine Period. The floor is part of the Horvat Kur synagogue built in the late 4th or early 5th century.

One of the leaders of the excavations is a Finn, Academy Research Fellow and Docent Raimo Hakola from the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology. He considers this a significant find.

“Mosaic floors from Late Antiquity have been found in private residences of the upper class and in many public buildings, such as temples, synagogues and churches,” he explains. “Finding one in a synagogue in the Galilean countryside is further evidence that local communities had sufficient financial resources to build public buildings and decorate them with mosaics.”

“The person mentioned in the inscription, El’azar, must have been a wealthy member of his community; one who could support the synagogue’s construction financially. He is also the first resident of Horvat Kur we know by name,” Hakola adds.

Excavations of the Horvat Kur synagogue provide insight into the history of Judaism and Christianity

According to Hakola, in the early 5th century there were already attempts to prevent the construction of new synagogues. For example, Christian emperors issued edicts to this effect.

“In Galilee, these prohibitions apparently didn’t have much of an influence since synagogues were being built and repaired there for quite some time. The Horvat Kur synagogue underwent repairs and renewals as late as the end of the 6th or the beginning of the 7th century,” says Hakola. “Synagogue communities and Christian pilgrimage centres seem to have co-existed relatively harmoniously in the area.”

Archaeological evidence also indicates that trade relations between different groups were common. For example, some of the roof tiles in the Horvat Kur synagogue were made in Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey.

The synagogue still awaits precise dating

Overall, the Horvat Kur excavations corroborate the belief that Judaism remained dynamic in Galilee long after Christianity became politically dominant in the region. They also question the hypothesis set forth in a previous study that the dominance of Christianity would have considerably restricted the living space of Jewish synagogue communities.

“The latest mosaic find and the stone seat unearthed in an earlier dig in Horvat Kur are undoubtedly part of synagogue interiors from Late Antiquity. However, the original purpose of the stone seat, found in summer 2012, has not yet been determined,” says Hakola.

The synagogue’s precise dating is still unclear.

“The mosaic floor represents the oldest part of the building, which has not yet been conclusively dated. Next summer we will continue excavations under the synagogue floor and in the immediate surroundings to find new and more detailed information about the building’s age,” Hakola explains.

“Archaeologic evidence is increasingly important for research focusing on the history of Christianity and Judaism, and we want to be among the first to analyse new data.”

The excavations of the Horvat Kur synagogue have been carried out since 2010 under the Kinneret Regional Project, funded by the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology, as well as Leiden University (the Netherlands), the University of Bern (Switzerland) and Wofford College (US). The excavations are led by Professor Jürgen Zangenberg (Leiden), Dr Raimo Hakola (Helsinki), Dr Stefan Münger (Bern) and Professor Byron McCane (Wofford College).

The Faculty of Theology is represented in the excavations by two Academy of Finland-funded centres of excellence: Reason and Religious Recognition and Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions. The excavations have also received support from the Foundation of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East.

Read more: Ancient synagogue mosaic floor showing menorah found at Horvat Kur, Israel